Ryan Zimmerman Is Enjoying Left Field, But Third Base Looms

Left field at AT&T Park in San Francisco is spacious — but compared to center field and right field, it’s not terribly complicated. No unusually high brick walls; no tricky angles. After Barry Bonds left the team, the Giants rotated some pretty mediocre defenders through left (and towards the end, Bonds was pretty mediocre himself). If the left fielder could hit, he’d probably be an overall plus, despite subpar range or weak arm. Think Pat Burrell in 2010.

The Washington Nationals’ four-game series in San Francisco this week, then, couldn’t have worked out better for new left fielder Ryan Zimmerman. The former Gold Glove third baseman made his first start in left on June 3 after returning from a 51-day stint on the disabled list for a broken right thumb. Zimmerman’s in left because Bryce Harper went down with his own thumb injury that is expected to keep him off the field until July. The Nationals moved Anthony Rendon to third — his natural position — and Danny Espinosa came off the bench to retake his old job at second. Before Zimmerman, Tyler Moore and Nate McLouth rotated in left and posted an 88 wRC+ and 58 wRC+, respectively.

But there’s much more to it. Zimmerman has been battling an arthritic condition in his right shoulder since 2012 and the injury has significantly affected his throwing motion. From 2007 through the 2011 season, Zimmerman had two of the top 10 defensive seasons for third baseman in the league, as measured by Defensive Runs Saved. Cumulatively, the only third baseman better than Zimmerman in those five seasons were Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen, again using DRS.

That all changed with the shoulder injury in 2012. A cortisone shot allowed him to play through pain — and he delivered at the plate to the tune of a .352 wOBA and 121 wRC+ — but his defense suffered. He and the Nationals hoped off-season surgery would alleviate the pain and the effects of the injury on his throwing motion, but 2013 wasn’t much better from the hot corner. Zimmerman’s cumulative DRS from 2007 through 2011 was +55; in 2012 and 2013, it dropped to -2.

Before breaking his right thumb on April 12, Zimmerman played 69 1/3 innings at third base. According to Inside Edge, he faced 19 “routine” chances and four “likely” chances and converted only 94.7% and 75% of them, respectively.

Zimmerman’s DL stint, coupled with Harper’s injury, gave the Nationals time to think about what to do with Zimmerman when he returned. And it’s not just this season at issue. Zimmerman is in the first year of a six-year, $100 million contract extension that he and the team inked just before the 2012 season. So as the thumb healed and Zimmerman began baseball activities, the Nationals asked him to focus on outfield drills. He was more than happy to oblige.

Before Wednesday night’s game against the Giants, Zimmerman seemed relaxed and almost giddy about his week as the Nationals left fielder. “It’s going well,” he told me. “It’s a lot different than playing third base. There’s a lot more time to react.”  That said, Zimmerman acknowledged that he never thought about how much goes into playing an outfield position. “There’s the footwork to get ready to catch and throw and the mental exercises of running through all the scenarios depending on the runners on base.”  He said it was a great opportunity to “learn a different side of baseball” after playing one position all these years.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” he repeated several times during the interview. There was also a strong sense of relief for Zimmerman. “Third base has been rough, physically and mentally. Nobody likes to fail.” Having the chance to move to left field has “eased his mind.”

After we spoke, Zimmerman went out and played a dandy left field. He saved a run in the bottom of the sixth with an inning-ending diving catch on a slicing line drive off the bat of Brandon Crawford.

The next inning, he charged a sinking liner and made another sliding catch. (Sorry, no embed link yet). There were also four fairly routine fly balls to left that Zimmerman handled just fine. Overall, in 78 2/3 innings in left field through Wednesday night’s game, Zimmerman caught all nine “routine” fly balls, as characterized by Inside Edge, and converted one of two “likely” chances. He’s failed to make plays on five “impossible” and “remote” chances, which means, so far, he’s not as good as Geraldo Parra or Will Venable.

All of this sounds like a happy ending for a franchise player with a career 120 wRC+ who’s signed through 2019. Not so fast, says manager Matt Williams. The Nats’ skipper was emphatic before the game that when Bryce Harper returns to the team, Zimmerman will go back to third base. He told reporters before Wednesday’s game, “We got a pretty good outfielder hopefully coming back really soon. The perfect world is, Zim would go back to third, where he’s played a long time and won a Gold Glove. And when Harp’s ready, Harp will play left. That’s the plan.” Williams added that Rendon would shift back to second and Espinosa would return to the bench.

A lot can happen between now and Harper’s return, of course. Center fielder Denard Span — who is on a hot streak after a miserable April at the plate — could go cold again. That might prompt Williams to move Harper to center and keep Zimmerman in left. First baseman Adam LaRoche could cool off after a torrid start to the season and give Williams a reason to start Zimmerman at first for a bit. There are also possible trades as we move closer to the end of July. The Nationals hold 2015 options on Span ($9 million) and LaRoche ($15 million).

For his part, Zimmerman says he just wants to give his team the best chance to win. In his view, Rendon at third gives the Nationals that chance, but then grinned and added that having too many good players is “a nice problem to have.”

Perhaps it is, as these logjams have a way of working themselves out when other players get injured or go through cold spells. For Zimmerman’s sake, let’s hope so.




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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


31 Responses to “Ryan Zimmerman Is Enjoying Left Field, But Third Base Looms”

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  1. james stokes says:

    I think he just had the yips at 3rd base and a shoulder injury was just made up to cover iit up. Happens more than you think

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    • Matt says:

      Agreed – he does fine on tougher plays that he just has to react to, but seems to have issues when he has time to set his feet and throw. It’s possible he somehow overcomes his throwing issues, but with these mental things, doubt will probably always linger in his mind.

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      • JCCfromDC says:

        I love it when people psychoanalyze from the stands or from TV. It’s a literally incredible skill!

        More seriously, it’s possible that the shoulder injuries are wearing on him mentally as well. There is an injury – you don’t take cortisone shots as a cover story, that’s just stupid. And the long term side affects of cortisone include weakened tendons and osteoporosis, so that my be at play as well. Zimmerman still throws just fine when he throws sidearm or underhanded – he still makes the barehand play on the bunt/slow roller as anyone, because that’s a sidearm throw on the move. But when he sets his feet and throws overhand it’s not pretty – which is why he started throwing sidearm even on routine plays before he went on the DL.

        Obviously Harper play. If everone stays healthy (unlikely, given the way the season has gone for the Nats) the question for the team is whether the offense/defense combination of Harper (LF), Span (CF), Zimmerman (3b) and Rendon (2b) outweighs the combination of Harper (CF), Espinosa (2b), Zimmerman (LF) and Rendon (3b). To me there’s not an obvious answer … yet. Harper is still a few weeks off, so it may well be moot.

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        • David says:

          They’re bailed out a bit by the fact that Harper, Span, and LaRoche are all LHB with real platoon splits. And on the flip side Espinosa is actually decent against LHP. So there’s a legitimate case for sitting one of those three every single game that they face a LHP and getting Espinosa’s starts there. Scratch out the occasional off day for Werth or Rendon and they can find PAs for everyone without having to put Zimm at 3B every. single. day.

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        • Matt says:

          Sure, the injuries have something to do with it, but why wouldn’t he just throw sidearm all the time then? Rendon’s throwing motion from 3B on routine plays is pretty much sidearm (as was Ripken’s when he moved to 3B), as is the case with many infielders. I’ve seen him make tough plays to his backhand side that didn’t involve charging the ball – so I certainly think their is a psychological aspect to it.

          I’m not necessarily trying to ‘psychoanalyze’ – just trying to think of explanations for why he seems fine on some plays and not on others – which seems to point to something beyond just a health issue.

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    • AynRand'ssocialsecurity# says:

      Never seen the yips worse than Chuck Knoblauch, painful to watch.

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      • Matt says:

        Yeah he’s the first that comes to mind for me as well. Second base is especially tough because you can’t simply just chuck the ball over there as hard as you can like you would at 3B or SS. I actually had issues with this for a while when I played 2B in high school – I was fine on turning double plays, but struggled with balls hit right at me when I could take my time and think about it. I eventually got over it for the most part, but I feel for these guys who have to deal with it on national TV.

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    • 804NatsFan says:

      I’m pretty sure the shoulder surgery and cortisone shots were not “just made up”.

      Having said that, as a Nats fan, I hold my breath NOT on the tough plays from third where he charges in and sidearms it, but on the ones where he has time, double pumps… and sails it into the stands. Probably something mental there… maybe merely “this is gonna hurt a bit”.

      His throws in from left don’t look strong either. (Although they still look better than Pence’s).

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    • AK7007 says:

      Yah, they do surgery on guys all the time to cover up mental problems. Totally makes more sense than, I dunno a sports psychologist. Happens way more than I think it would. Or you know – he’s actually hurt.

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      • Matt says:

        Pretty sure the mental issues developed after the surgery, and nobody on this thread has implied different. He’s obviously got some physical discomfort that is contributing to his throwing issues, but I don’t think it’s out of line to ask whether part of the problem is psychological. When guys have the yips they do generally alter their mechanics, usually subconsciously, so it seems like an appropriate question to raise.

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        • AK7007 says:

          I’m pretty sure the exact quote OP was “I think he just had the yips at 3rd base and a shoulder injury was just made up to cover iit up. Happens more than you think”

          I don’t know what to make of “shoulder injury was just made up to cover it up” besides snark. Because, seriously that was a dumb line when a guy has an injury. Other commenters are then looking and saying, “hey this guy can’t throw after surgery, but I’m pretty sure it’s all in his head, don’t look at that scar.” “Part of the problem being psychological” could magically go away when the pain goes away. I just don’t see the practical benefit of the speculation the way you guys do.

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  2. AynRand'ssocialsecurity# says:

    Why is it even mentioned that he failed to make impossible plays? By the very definition they can’t be made. These plays don’t affect his defensive numbers do they? I would assume they’re just simply left out of the calculation but a lot of these defensive calculation don’t make much sense to me. I heard that George Springer’s amazing diving catch/double play doesn’t even affect his defensive numbers because Houston was in a shift but I don’t know if that’s true.

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    • Josh M says:

      http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/inside-edge-fielding-data/

      The scouts grade the probability of making a play on a batted ball. If there is a ball hit to left field but there is zero chance of Zimmerman (or any left fielder for that matter) making a play on it, there was still a ball hit to left field that has to be accounted for.

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    • nd says:

      The number of plays that classify as “impossible” that are actually made is ridiculously low, and for good reason. Missing those plays doesn’t hurt the defensive rating so much as making the play would give it a huge boost.

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    • Jason B says:

      I think it was just included for completeness sake. it wasn’t implying that he “should have” or was expected to make those plays classified as impossible.

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  3. cass says:

    I believe the there’s a mutual option for 2015 in LaRoche’s contract. It’s not a team option.

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    • JCCfromDC says:

      That’s correct. The Nats can buy out LaRoche’s half of that option for $2M. Which they would only do if he struggles in the second half enough so that a 1/$15M deal sounds good to him (versus a possible 2-3 year deal if he continues to rake).

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  4. Slacker George says:

    I think Zimmerman’s got it wrong: “There’s a lot more time to react.”
    If an OFer wants to catch the “Impossible” or “Remote” fly balls, you better have great reactions.

    At 3B, you have less time to react to avoid getting hit in the head or the tender parts. In the OF, your highlight reel can mask mediocre reaction times. At 3B, you look pretty silly if you slow dive for a ball hit one foot either side of your navel.

    I’m not saying it is just as hard to play OF as it is 3B; quick reactions are just as valuable in the OF as they are at 3B.

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    • Richie says:

      Sorta right, but not entirely. Any non-routine play at 3rd, you gotta react quick or your toast. Even on ‘likely’ plays in the outfield, you’ve got a bit of a reaction cushion, so to speak.

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  5. Baltar says:

    It’s nice to see you write a non-business article, Wendy, and a very good one on a very interesting subject at that. I hope we get more like this.

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    • Jason B says:

      Seconded! I know that I’m getting a kick-ass article when Wendy writes about baseball’s economic or legal issues. It’s awesome to see her spreading those writing skills into hardcore baseball analysis too. Win for the FG readership.

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  6. robertobeers says:

    I am interested in hearing a good reason why he shouldn’t be playing second.

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    • Richie says:

      He hasn’t turned a double play in, well, probably his whole life (from the 2B side). Doing it wrong is a fantastic way to wreck a knee or ankle.

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      • AK7007 says:

        Wow, what compelling analysis! Do something wrong and you might hurt yourself! Sounds like a great reason not to try him at second.

        The question to ask is – can he learn to work over there? The skill set is likely there, and with a diminished arm, might play better. Nobody is asking Zimmerman to switch mid-season, but could he do it next year?

        Zimmerman has SS experience. He can play 2B. How long it would take to get ready is anybody’s guess.

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        • Matt says:

          My main concern would be if he has the range for 2b – there is considerably more ground to cover over there than at 3b and Zimm isn’t exactly a burner.

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        • David says:

          2B requires more arm than 3B on the double play.

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        • emdash says:

          He got moved off shortstop on his kid’s travel team and in college so Mark Reynolds could play it. Mark Reynolds. That doesn’t say great things about his middle-infield range. In addition, second base throws are all arm – even more than third, you can’t take the time for a crow-hop to build up momentum for a throw. It would be pretty likely it would wreck his shoulder even worse. There’s a reason it’s never been brought up as an option by the team even though second base was an offensive black hole for the Nats last year.

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        • AK7007 says:

          This thought exercise is hard to do with stats, because most defensive numbers are position-neutralized, so I’ll try to use the Fans Scouting Report to illustrate. (there are issues of fan bias, but this is a rough illustration) League-wide, 2B have averaged range values of around 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Zimmerman has been rated by fans last year to have a first step value of 60 and speed of 50. That screams to me, good enough range. (not great) We know his hands can handle it. So it’s really about the arm.

          Third basemen league-wide were rated to have an average arm strength of 55. Second basemen? 45. As in, they were deemed by their teams to be acceptable at second even if their arm strength wasn’t as good as a third baseman. The issue then, is going to be accuracy. Everybody needs an accurate arm.

          There has been a decline in his skills to the point that another player on his team probably is better at his position than him. His skills are now probably adequate at another position. This isn’t some giant controversial statement. Baseball is difficult. Every position is difficult. Some demand different skillets, and see batted balls at different rates. Maximizing team effectiveness comes from matching those skillets with the different positions – hence the thought experiment that one player (Zimmerman) might be better utilized at another position. You can disagree that the statement is true, but it’s not a ludicrous thought.

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        • Matt says:

          Yeah I don’t necessarily disagree with that assessment. I guess I was saying that he’s unlikely to have even average range at 2b, as it’s a different kind of quickness than you need for 3b (which you acknowledged). I’d venture to guess that the arm issues wouldn’t be as big of a deal, since he seems OK when throwing sidearm – which is more common at 2b.

          Part of the problem with commenters here, or with the Nats’ decision makers, probably has something to do with the fact that he doesn’t have the ‘look’ of a second baseman – at 6’3″ 220 lbs, he’d probably be the biggest 2b in recent memory. Jeff Kent (6’2″ 210 lbs), for instance, was a pretty adequate defensive 2b, although I think he was perceived as being below average because he didn’t seem to fit the part. If I’m making personnel decisions for the Nats, I’d at least entertain the idea by having him workout there in the offseason.

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        • robertobeers says:

          The size argument was the main one I came up with. Matt Williams doesn’t strike me as the type of manager that thinks outside the box in terms of his archetype of a 2B. Neil Walker and Matt Carpenter are both bigger guys that have manned 2B with legit success.

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  7. Colin says:

    It’s presumed that LaRoche is gone by the offseason, at latest.
    Should the Nationals consider moving either Werth or Harper to first instead of Zimmerman?
    (All throw right handed.)

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